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This article was written on 25 Feb 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Workplace bullying

DISCLAIMER: All names in this piece are disguised in a slightly halfarsed manner. Should any employment lawyers be reading this and want to take on Hatmarket Publishing, please know that I can’t pay you but would find the idea of them at some kind of tribunal deeply entertaining.

Ah, Hatmarket Publishing. I arrived at the station in the summer of 1997 to come and work for you, all pink and young and eager, and departed just over four years ago, hating you with the kind of passion and focus that Russian soldiery reserved for Hitler. How is this possible? Well, to give it a name, it’s called workplace bullying. And this is how it happened.

When I arrived at Hatmarket, I was on work experienced with a magazine called, say, Douglas Wanker’s Football Bumcheese, which was once the market leading football magazine. Right now, it’s a vehicle for sportswear manufacturers to get their footballers some free coverage and to sell football boots, and for Hatmarket to make lots of money for the Hosoltine family. Which is nice.

I was subjected to the kind of ribald but essentially good-humoured jokes that people on work experience have to accept and, on occasion, join in with as the willing straight man. All fine. But there was one person there who really invested time and effort in finding out where your weak spots were, pointing them out to the office and figuratively kicking you around the floor for his own entertainment.

We’ll call this person, because that’s the kind of mood we’re in, Mike Bastard. After doing work experience, for free, for four weeks, I was offered a job on a wage that now seems comically bad. Mike Bastard made it his mission to make my life an absolute misery. Remember, gentle reader, that I was at the lowest rung on the editorial ladder and that Hatmarket didn’t look kindly on unions, so I had no power.

Day in day out, I had to cope with Mike Bastard doing his thing. Occasionally, he’d do it to other people, and we’d all laugh nervously, hoping that he wouldn’t pick on us. Most of us were right of course, except me, who would be the target once Mike Bastard had got bored and decided that the original target had the best comedy potential.

In time, Mike moved on and we also got a new editor, who I’ll call Basil Shitbrains. Now, old Basil got the job because a publisher called Gary Goatshagger, which isn’t his real name, oddly enough, gave it to him. Old Shitbrains admitted to not reading magazines or knowing much about them and to wanting us to work on Saturday. Needless to say, Goatshagger thought he was great, right up to the point that he wiped about sixty thousand off the circulation.

But by the time the full magnitude of his mistake was clear, Goatshagger had moved on within the same company, left his wife and was having an affair with someone who looked like a penis, so the job of getting rid of Shitbrains, himself a bit of a bullying halfwit with a short man complex that made Napoleon look sane and rational, fell to a publisher who was even shorter and who had no shoulders. I can’t be arsed to give this publisher a comedy name, but he told Shitbrains that he could resign or be fired, so Shitbrains resigned and spent the remaining weeks eating lunch in his Peugeot.

Fast forward a few years and I’d gone freelance only to be lured back to Hatmarket by the chance to work on the recruitment brochures that they published for the Army. This turned out to be both a mistake and a blessing, of which more later. But I’d been there for a while when Mike Bastard arrived to work on the same publications and, to give Mike credit, he’d been working on his act, because now it was much more sophisticated.

Mike pretended to be your friend. He made you think that the bullying had stopped, you opened up to him, and then he used it against you. This carried on for years and was hideously effective. Each time you thought it had finally stopped, it carried on again, using a kind of cruel mockery to make everyone else, nervous that they could be the target, laugh at you. Some days I went home not knowing for sure who I was and over a period of time, the effects were devastating.

If you take a piece of metal and bend it one way, it stays in that position. Keep bending it one way and then the other, for a long period of time, and it’ll finally break, which is exactly what happened. My wife at the time was bipolar and was often very ill, so I had challenges at home and in the fullness of time and with a kind of grim inevitability I got mentally ill myself and the had an ill-judged affair with someone at work who had all the shining personal qualities of Caligula.

I broke. Utterly. I moved out of my house with my wife, then got very ill, and then moved back in again. And then I resigned, which I should have done years before because the work I was doing was so immoral that something about it had eaten through my outer casing and ended up ulcerating my soul. Just about the last thing I had done was a brochure which was designed to get parents to drop their objections to their children joining the Army. The idea of this makes me wince now, but at the time, it was my normal.

Through all this, Mike Bastard kept up his campaign of friendly bullying which occasionally strayed into openly aggressive contempt. When he found out I was going to the Quakers, he barracked me more and told be I should be supporting my local football team instead. I propped myself back up onto my elbows, struggling on and then he sent me home because my work wasn’t up to the desired standard. Well, colour me amazed.

As Bastard’s bullying reached fever pitch, Hatmarket called me into a meeting with two people from HR, Bastard himself and the publisher. You’ll notice that I had no representation here, which is basically how Hatmarket roll, and was made to promise to work harder. Good idea that, telling someone with mental illness that they’re not working hard enough and need to up their game. Oh, and they also hooked me up with one-off counselling phone support with Unum, who didn’t answer the phone. So that was helpful.

After being sent home, my brain unravelled fairly fast and I got on with the task of falling properly to bits. Mike Bastard called me about a year ago and, much as I’d like to believe that he was seized by remorse, I doubt it. I ended the call and then sent him an email advising him that any further contact with people from Hatmarket would be referred to my solicitor with immediate effect. Oddly enough, he didn’t call again and, even though I’m a Quaker with a lived commitment to non-violence, everything in me would want to punch his head clean off his shoulders and kick his corpse until its limbs fell off. Not pretty.

Partly, this is about Hatmarket, who have a collective genius for taking bright and passionate people, able to make magazines with skill and dedication, and turn them into dead-eyed corporate drones who live for the meagre pay packet at the end of the week and spend the rest of the time hating themselves. But, much more significantly, it’s about how a culture of bullying, institutionally overlooked, treads down everyone in a workplace.

I’m six foot three, male and broad shouldered. I no more look like I could be bullied in the workplace than I could do something elegant. But I was. If someone is broken in the right, or rather, wrong ways, and wants to hurt you, then they will. The more good natured you are, the harder they will twist you, until you come to the edge of a loathing that looks exactly like theirs but is more hideous and more shabby because it’s second hand. This means, I think, given the wrong circumstances, that it could happen to anyone.

What should I have done? I don’t know. Maybe I should have reported him, but maybe Hatmarket should have had a pastoral care system, or maybe, as I suspect is the case, they wouldn’t have given a bugger while the money was rolling in and when an employee doesn’t have any power, they’re on a hiding to unemployment or the non-renewal of a contract.

What it taught me, if I’m going to salvage something positive from this mess, is the value of compassion when you’re dealing with other employees, hell, other people, even though they might be the kind of person you’d cross the street to avoid in any other walk of life. In a confined environment, a total shit can make your life hell, but a good fellow employee or manager can give you a reason to come into work and lift what you’re working on from the mundane to the diverting. That’s what I deserved and that’s what I didn’t get.

When I’d resigned from Hatmarket, I felt as though I’d been relieved of a major burden I was carrying. I thought and, to be honest, still do, about bringing a private prosecution for their failure to look after their employees and maybe see Mike Bastard in the dock, but perhaps this isn’t the way. The ultimate punishment for Hatmarket’s managers and people like Bastard, Shitbrains and Goatshagger is that they have to be themselves day in, day out. And frankly, that’s more than enough recompense.

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